Auto-drip coffee is entrenched in American culture for three reasons. It’s cheap, easy to make, and has a relatively consistent taste wherever you order it, apart from the random Chicory-spiked landmines you can stumble on down south. Those benefits have been compounded now that the process of measuring grounds, water, and finding a filter has even been stripped from of our bumbling hands, and replaced by pods and glowing blue buttons. Really there’s nothing wrong with all this simplification — except that it comes at the expense of taste.
The good news is there are a variety of ways to get more from the same brown grounds, without derailing your precious schedule or body-slamming your wallet. From the classic French Press, to the avant-garde Cafe Solo, stepping outside of the auto-drip wall will invigorate your morning and leave you wondering how you ever tolerated coffee any other way.
Your crash-course in better brewing commences right after the break.
Embrace the Daily Grind
Before we even get into particular brewing methods, it’s important to start with some key preparation ground rules. They may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people fail to understand the age old equation of garbage in, garbage out.
1. Buy Freshly Roasted, Quality Whole Bean Coffee
The flavor of coffee depends on the type of bean, and the way said beans are roasted, just as much as the brewing method. While it’s a crude analogy, buying pre-ground coffee equates to paying for a pre-opened six pack. The moment beans are ground they begin to lose the natural flavor and oils to the surrounding air. That’s the stuff you’re aiming to capture in your brew, so whenever possible, buy freshly-roasted whole bean coffee. This probably eliminates the coffee aisle in your local grocery store, but specialty shops and natural food markets often have this in stock.
The optimal source is of course a local roaster. There, not only you will not only find the freshest beans, but you’ll also ultimately gain invaluable knowledge by speaking with the roaster. Tell them what you look for in a good coffee and they’ll help guide you through picking the right bean and roast. Remember, above all else, keep the beans whole before walking out, since the moment they are ground is the moment the oxidization process begins.
Don’t have a source for freshly roasted beans in your local area? No worries. We rounded up a few of the best who always ship the freshest beans across the country.
2. Acquire a Burr Grinder
As our previous rule hinted, grinding just before brewing insures you’ll get the most flavor from those precious beans you schlepped all over town to find. So having a personal grinder on hand is key for optimal results. These devices fall into two categories. We recommend picking a Burr grinder over the blade variety (or coffee mill) for several reasons. Though they may be cheaper, blade grinders are both messy and noisy. They also operate on the same principles as a kitchen blender, chopping up beans into smaller and smaller pieces the longer they run. The results subsequently lack consistency, which can increase bitterness and affect how hot water removes the flavorful coffee oils from the beans (known formally as extraction). If a grind lacks uniformity, some coffee bean particles will inevitably extract too much of the oil while others will extract too little. Uneven grinds also create more fine “coffee dust” which can clog filters and damage certain kinds of coffee machines.
Burr grinders, on the other hand, work by crushing coffee beans between a moving grinding wheel (the shredding disk, or burr) and a non-moving surface. This method produces far more consistent results and allows for more distinction in grind types, which is determined by the distance between the two burrs. The closer together they are, the finer the grind. Burr class grinders fall into two subcategories of Wheel Burrs and Conical Burrs. Conical Burrs are superior because they spin slower than their wheeled compatriots, making them quieter and less messy. They also tend to perform better creating incredibly finely ground coffees, and handle oily coffee beans better since their design is less prone to clogging. These traits of course make Conical Burrs pricier than the Wheel variety. The other main factor in grinder price relates to the quality of motor. An excellent grinder we recommend is the Capresso Infinity Conical Burr Grinder.
Despite all of these points, the truth is that these distinctions in grinders will only matter to diehard espresso fans with highly discerning palates. What’s most important is grinding your own beans, because even the worst blade grinder will produce much better results than using stale, pre-ground coffee.
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3. Kettles Aren’t Equal
This last point is definitely less critical than buying whole bean coffee and grinding at home, but it still plays an important role when striving for that perfect cup. The gaping open mouth on your classic home kettle is perfect for most hot drinks, but when it comes to coffee, that fast pour feature lacks fine control and can ultimately drown your grinds, to the detriment of your extraction process. The long goose neck on kettle such as the Hario VKB-120HSV V60 Kettle Buono are designed to ensure maximum control over your pouring and allows users to pour closely to the grinds as opposed to pummeling them from far above. It seems silly, but you’ll need one for optimal results.
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4. Measure Twice, Brew Once
Since every palate is different, it’s important to brew subjectively. That said, if you hope to recreate your favorite cup on a regular basis, consistency is key. A scale may seem excessive to some, but it’s a must for the obsessive enthusiast. An excellent scale we recommend is the affordable, yet effective Ozeri Touch II.
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Become the Brewmaster
Now that we’ve covered the core fundamentals of creating a great cup, it’s time to dive into specifics about the various alternative brewing methods you have at your disposal. The four methods we describe below are commonly referred to by the devices required in the brewing process, but they also go by more generic names.
This specific brewing method, also known as “pourover” yields a brew that emits a clear, yet defined cup. The cone shape, hole at the bottom, and vortex-like ridges all ensure proper and unique extraction–aiming — preventing water from dripping too quickly, or too slowly over the grounds. With maximum infusion and a light filter, the result is a magnificently smooth cup.
Brew Time: Approx. 2 min. 30 sec.
- Heat water in a kettle to about 195° – 205°F (Boil water and let stand for about 30 seconds).
- Now grind your whole bean coffee. Aiming for 3 tablespoons of grounds for every 8 ounces of coffee you’d like to brew is a recommended ratio, but we insist you personalize to find your ideal strength. Just make sure you do this only after your water has boiled. Waiting until after your water has boiled will ensure that you have the maximum level of flavor in your grinds. Also, by letting the water cool while you grind, it should be the perfect temperature for drinking by the time the process is done.
- Pre-wet the filter by placing the filter in the v60, and pouring hot water over it. Discard the hot water from the brewing vessel. This rinse will help to remove any papery taste added by the filter.
- Put the desired amount of grinds into the pre-wetted filter and cone.
- Lightly saturate the grinds, without floating them, and allow them to “bloom” for about 45 – 60 seconds. Blooming is the term used to describe the chemical reaction that takes place when hot water is poured over freshly ground coffee which manifests in the form of bubbles coming up through the water/coffee mixture. The age of the beans will determine blooming time (newer coffee will bloom longer than older coffee). Waiting for the bloom to subside allows the grounds to properly oxidize before full extraction.
- Starting from the middle, and working your way around in small circles, slowly pour water in a counter-clockwise motion, never pouring around the sides, and never filling all the way to the brim.
- After water has slowed to a sporadic drip, take the v60 cone off the server.
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The French Press or press pot is an excellent option for someone wanting a robust, complex brew that permits the bean’s fullest flavor potential. Brewing is done through an infusion process where the grounds are completely submerged into the water without initial filtration. Even after plunging, you may still see some sediment at the bottom of your brew. This is simply a byproduct of utilizing this hearty brew method, and you shouldn’t be worried.
Brew Time: Approx. 3 min.
- Heat water to about 195º-205º F (Boil water and let stand for about 30 seconds).
- Now grind your whole bean coffee, aiming for two tablespoons of ground coffee per every six ounces of water your particular French Press model can hold. Make sure you do this only after your water has boiled. Also, by letting the water cool while you grind, it should be the perfect temperature for drinking by the time the process is done.
- Next, prep the vessel by removing the plunger and pouring in hot water to preheat it. Pour out the water from the French Press after a moment.
- Add the grounds to the bottom of the French Press. Then add the water steadily, making sure to saturate all the grounds as your pour. In the process, make sure you leave room for the plunger to be added back in by stopping a few inches short from the brim of your vessel. No one likes a scalding mess of water plunged about the kitchen.
- After adding the water, the grounds should immediately start to bloom. As an option, you may use chopsticks to stir the slurry (coffee water mixture) only a few times to aid in complete extraction. Otherwise, allow the grinds to steep for about three minutes when using a smaller french press. Bump that time up to four minutes with larger models.
- Now it’s time to plunge. Place one hand firmly on the plunger stick, and the other on the french press pot handle. Then push down in a slow and controlled manner, always keeping the plunger stick completely upright if possible. Coming down at an angle will cause grinds to escape into the upper portion of the pot — resulting in a grittier cup of coffee.
- Enjoy, and remember to hold on to the pot lid when pouring to prevent shifting or the lid from popping off on accident
Editor’s Tip: For the summer months, iced coffee may be a desired alternative. Luckily, a French Press is also an excellent vessel to make cold brew coffee. A common misconception of iced coffee is to brew coffee as normal, and simply add ice; however, cold brew is a lengthy process that takes time and patience.
For an excellent iced coffee, grind beans similar to the regular French Press method. Add cold/room temperature water. Cover the mixture, and let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. Next, stir lightly and plunge. Pour over ice if desired, or simply enjoy as is. Either way you’ll notice the difference in flavor profile. Whenever coffee grounds are heated, acidity and aromatics are withdrawn due to a chemical reaction. Conversely, extended cold extraction creates a light, smooth body, which may also be an answer to your prayers if coffee tends to upset your stomach.
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The Chemex is similar to the v60, but with a cleaner, brighter profile. This is mainly due to the filters, which have a finer grain and are about 30% thicker. This allows the filter to control the brewing process with precise speed, and withhold the proper amount of coffee silt. The result: a flawless cup of coffee.
Brew Time: Approx. 4 minutes
- Place Chemex filters with the 3 layer side facing the pouring spout.
- Heat water to about 195º-205º F (Boil water and let stand for about 30 seconds).
- Now grind your whole bean coffee. SCAA recommends 7.25 grams per 6 ounce cup, but it’s all relative. With time and experience, you will find the perfect ratio. As with the aforementioned processes, make sure you do this only after your water has boiled.
- Pre-wet the filter paper, and pour out the remaining water. Note: Do not remove the paper filter to pour out remaining water. It should sufficiently stick to the brewing cone.
- Then pour the desired amount of grounds into the filter.
- Next, pour a small amount of water over grounds allowing them to bloom. Make sure you fully wet the grounds, but stop before floating them.
- After grounds have finished oxidizing (about 90 seconds), slowly finish pouring the water in a circular motion and be patient. If you get close to filling water to the brim, wait and let the water filter down a bit before continuing until the desired amount of coffee is brewed.
- Remove the filter, discard, and enjoy.
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This method is ideal for those who enjoy the bold simplicity of French Press, but want a slightly cleaner brew.
Brew Time: Approx 4 Min.
- Make sure the jacket is on the carafe, and left unzipped to properly see your water level.
- Boil water, add several ounces to carafe, swirl, and discard remaining water.
- Now grind your whole bean coffee. 1 tablespoon of coffee per 4 ounces of water is recommended. That amounts to about 10 scoops for a 1 liter brewer. Again, make sure the water reaches the boiling point.
- Add the desired amount of coffee.
- Next, add water, making sure not to entirely fill the brewer, and allow infusion to “bloom” for about 1 minute.
- Lightly stir the brew back and forth and place the filter lid on the carafe.
- Let it brew for another 3 minutes with the lid on.
- After 4 minutes of total brew time, slowly and carefully pour the brew. The carafe should not be overly tilted to speed up pouring, because this will cause the brew to become overly-agitated and the sediment will rise to the top. If you are pouring into multiple cups, it is recommended that you first pour into a separate server, as multiple pouring may also agitate the brew. Also, leave a little brew in the carafe as it will mostly contain coffee silt.
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Well, there you have it, gents. The four brewing methods described above will all produce noticeably better results than that Mr. Coffee you’ve had for years, and finally give you something to look forward to in the mornings besides the thought of returning home later. Best of all, each of the methods we described takes less than five minutes of preparation time (we’re not counting the time to boil water), and typically costs way less than a few runs to Starbucks. Funny, those reasons sound a lot like the ones that made auto-drip so appealing, right? Consider your excuses cooked.
Need a refill? Consider watching West Coast Blitz, our epic 800 mile high-speed drive for Blue Bottle Coffee.